Wojo: UM loss leaves Harbaugh bitter, rivalry thriving

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Columbus, Ohio — Jim Harbaugh couldn’t believe it. Michigan players couldn’t explain it. Even Urban Meyer could scarcely lift himself off the turf when it finally ended.

This is how classics are born and rivalries are sustained, in controversy and confusion and incredible drama, in a game that will haunt the Wolverines as long as any ever has. Michigan’s defense dominated Ohio State for long stretches Saturday but the Buckeyes owned the big moments, as they often do, and pulled out a 30-27 victory in double overtime.

Depending on your perspective, the Wolverines gave it away, or the Buckeyes took it away, or the officiating got in the way. From my perspective, all three were true, in that order. Harbaugh’s angry diatribe about “outrageous calls” came from frustration, and he’ll surely be reprimanded for it. But while his comments were raw and real and rooted in questionable calls, they also were measured, not loud. And when emotions subside, he’ll probably acknowledge his focus on the refs was too narrow.

“I thought that our guys did everything they possibly could,” Harbaugh said. “I’m bitterly disappointed with the officiating. That’s how I feel right now.”

Niyo: Speight shoulders the pain in Michigan loss

The Wolverines also made crushing mistakes, including three turnovers by Wilton Speight, who battled admirably through a shoulder injury. That’s the primary reason they lost, despite a ferocious effort by the defense, which sacked J.T. Barrett eight times.

The final margin was so narrow, literally a few inches, volatile reactions were understandable. One play before the Buckeyes won it on a 15-yard run by Curtis Samuel, the Wolverines nearly won it in equally stunning fashion, stuffing Barrett on fourth and 1 at the 15. Officials ruled it a first down and replay supported the call, barely. From some angles, it appeared the ball, in Barrett’s right arm, didn’t quite reach the 15. Too close to overturn? Probably.

Official objections

Too much to take for Harbaugh, who had numerous gripes with the officiating? Oh yes. He noted Ohio State was penalized twice for 6 yards, while Michigan lost 59 yards on seven penalties.

“I thought there were some outrageous calls, including the one that would have ended the game,” Harbaugh said. “They had a good camera angle on it. The ball doesn’t make it to the line.”

Harbaugh held his hands about a foot apart to indicate how short he thought it was. In the cramped visitor’s interview room, his eyes darted left and right, and kept returning to the hard stare. It wasn’t just the final spot of the ball, he said. It was a no-call on Michigan’s second possession in the second overtime, when receiver Grant Perry clearly was interfered with on a third-down pass and the Wolverines had to settle for a field goal.

Late in the game, safety Delano Hill was called for interference on a similar play, when the ball sailed over Samuel’s head. It happened on the Buckeyes’ final drive of regulation, capped by Tyler Durbin’s 23-yard field goal to send it to overtime.

“They got a gift interference call, a gift,” Harbaugh snapped. “The ball was uncatchable, past the receiver when Delano Hill made contact. Fast forward to overtime, second overtime, Grant Perry is getting hooked, turned before the ball gets there. ... I thought we did a heck of a job defensively. We probably need to end this because we’re going to keep beating a dead horse here, because you know how I feel.”

Players supported their coach but kept their comments tamer. Truthfully, they just looked exhausted, and devastated by the enormous implications of defeat. Ohio State (11-1) won for the 12th time in 13 meetings and will land in the college football playoff, while Michigan (10-2) heads home to mull an uncertain fate. Also, Harbaugh is 0-2 versus Meyer now.

‘Instant classic’

The Wolverines weren’t looking for gifts afterward, but when asked if their playoff hopes were still alive, they defended their record. It would take a few more upsets, including losses by Washington and Clemson, but Michigan’s two defeats were on the road by one point at Iowa and three points in double overtime at Ohio State.

Close enough, but probably not good enough.

“I don’t know how it’s all gonna shake out with the committee, I’m sure our chances are slim to none now,” Speight said. “It’s a bummer that we don’t get another shot at those guys this year.”

Jim Harbaugh furious, ‘bitterly disappointed’ with refs

Do you think you deserve another shot?

“Yes, I believe that,” Speight said. “You see two heavyweight teams going to double overtime, I think that speaks volumes about our chance for the playoffs.”

While Wisconsin and Penn State will play in the Big Ten Championship Game, circumstances are now out of Michigan’s control. The Wolverines beat both at home — 49-10 over the Nittany Lions and 14-7 over the Badgers — but in big road games, their mistakes were amplified and their offense too inconsistent.

Their defense was absolutely dominant at times, with Taco Charlton recording 2 1/2 sacks. Michigan led 17-7 in the third quarter and seemed to be in control, but then Speight threw his second interception. His first was a pick-6, a 16-yard touchdown by Malik Hooker, and this was just about the same. Jerome Baker’s interception put the Buckeyes at the 13, and they scored moments later.

Speight, who wouldn’t say whether his injured left shoulder bothered him (it looked like it did), said he felt he let the defense down. Actually, the running game was an issue again, as Michigan was outrushed 206-91 and couldn’t match Barrett’s production.

But Meyer was so flummoxed by Michigan’s defense, he ordered a fake punt from his 19 in the third quarter, and it failed. So it came down to the craziest of endings, and he made the bold call on fourth down, instead of attempting a tying field goal.

“That’s an instant classic between two great teams,” Meyer said. “We knew it was going to be that way. That’s one of the best defenses we’ve ever gone against.”

For three quarters, it probably was as suffocating as Michigan’s defense can be, and then it was beaten in overtime. That partly explained Harbaugh’s passionate defense of his team, and his defiance of decorum.

He was still fuming about an unsportmanslike-conduct penalty he received in the third quarter, when he flipped his play chart on the sideline after an offside penalty. He followed that up by flinging his headset and busting it. Harbaugh later said several times he was “bitter,” but stopped short of stirring any home-cooking conspiracies.

Maybe he vented to avoid lamenting another Michigan disappointment in the Horseshoe, or belaboring the key mistakes. Rancor aside, the game certainly lived up to the gaudy billing and put the rivalry back on full boil, as confounding and consequential as it’s ever been. @bobwojnowski